Game of Thrones production designer Riley, EP Caulfield explain delayed Season 8, claim “it will never get better than this”

Bernie Caulfield (left), Deborah Riley (center), Alyssa Rosenberg (right). Photo: Smithsonian Associates

Bernie Caulfield, Deborah Riley, Alyssa Rosenberg. Photo: Smithsonian Associates

“Can I have a picture?”

A small crowd had formed around Game of Thrones’ Production Designer Deborah Riley and Executive Producer Bernie Caulfield this past Monday as they held court in the airy atrium of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. In a night of trivia, factoids, humor and heart, an auditorium crammed with Game of Thrones fans ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaahed’ through a stunning visual presentation and an insightful conversation with Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg. Here below are some things you probably didn’t know about Game of Thrones’ production, sets and famous scenes!

Production Designer Deborah Riley headed up the art department. She stood on the stage, poised and practiced, crisply delivering fascinating, novel and frequently entertaining information to avid fans in the audience. Meanwhile, Executive Producer Bernie Caulfield, whose influence on the show spanned seasons and continents, claimed to not know why she was there but charmed the audience with anecdotes from the set and humor that got the biggest laugh lines of the night.

The VFX post-production was the main thing that held back Season 8 for so long

Season 8’s extensive post-production was the main reason it was held back for so long

Much of the production is kept together in Belfast; the Art Department and Visual Effects occupy the same building while sets and stages sit close by. These studios are said to be freezing cold, so much so that in the first season, the VFX department had to remove the visible breath from actors due to the low temperatures. In one memorable scene from the pilot in which Robb, Jon and Theon get shirtless haircuts, the men were visibly shivering with chattering teeth between takes, as mimicked by Caulfield.

For those following along on Watchers, it takes 200 days to produce a normal 10-episode season of Game of Thrones—20 per episode. The number crept to 250 with the final 6-episode season, more than doubling the time spent filming each episode. And that was just the beginning: this season needed 40 weeks (WEEKS!) to complete its vast visual effects, from dragon fire to burning men leaping off of buildings and “people on fire” (Who??? Where???). It was due to this that the schedule was thrown off by almost a year.

Despite this extravagance, a single ship prop set lasted for all seasons of Game of Thrones, except for the inclusion of Euron’s ship last season. The ship which sailed the seas of Westeros and beyond in reality sat in a parking lot and was altered according to the sailor who needed it. From the same Linen Mill Studios lot the ship rests in, you can see the backlot that contained Riverrun and Harrenhal, among other locations.

Snow is really, really hard to deal with, Riley complains. It is fragile, expensive and easily destroyed. Their “Snow Guy” (Game of Thrones has a dedicated “Snow Guy”) would have to bathe the set with snow at the last possible second before filming, lest it dull and become mush underfoot. At times, they had to rely on VFX to get snow looking right.

Riley loves that there were so many architectural styles crammed into one show, especially her Meereen set. People accused Riley of ripping off Frank Lloyd Wright and she does not dispute it; she was asked to write for a Frank Lloyd Wright magazine after the episodes aired and described it as professional validation.

D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Photo: TIME / Miles Aldridge

Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Photo: TIME / Miles Aldridge

An outline from showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is given to Riley’s department and her team gleans information from it about new sets that need to be built. They aren’t dry documents but are “surprisingly funny,” says Caulfield. “We lived for” D&D’s approval, she adds, mockingly and adoringly. The showrunners felt in the face of fan criticism that it was more important to have a vision and stand by it. “They have their own vision and choose where to go with it,” affirms Caulfield.

David and Dan shut down suggestions of labeling places onscreen early in the season and wanted different parts of the world to be recognizable enough that they would not need to be labeled for the audience.

Caulfield also shares that D&D were excited about stepping away from the source material, as George R.R. Martin “had not been writing the books.”

The House of Black and White, in the eponymous second episode of season five.

The House of Black and White, in the eponymous second episode of season five.

The House of Black and White, temple and headquarters of the Faceless Men Arya seeks in season five, was inspired by a structure Deborah Riley saw in India. Many of her creations come from places that interest and inspire her in the real world.

The Hall of Faces inside the temple, for example, was inspired in part by Indian caves and the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong. There are some recognizable faces in the hall; out of the 600 made, crew members, producers and even a production member’s mother were among the faces of the dead.

To construct the House of Black and White, production started in a bombed-out Croatian hotel.

One might not think of the location for the Battle of the Bastards as a production design challenge, but that it was

The look for the Battle of the Bastards was inspired by Picasso’s Guernica

It turns out that the perfect field is hard to find. Once production found a suitable location for season six’s Battle of the Bastards, they killed all of the grass with fertilizer to perfect the look of the battlefield.

The reference image for Battle of the Bastards was Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, which depicts the brutality, horror and wretchedness of war during the Spanish Civil War (Gernika, a northern town in the Basque Country, had been bombed by Nazi Germany and Italian warplanes at the request of the fascistic Spanish Nationalists.)

80 horses were used in Battle of the Bastards with several hundred extras and plenty of special effects. Riley and Caulfield say that the show likes to ground visual effects through having things on camera. Caulfield explains that the horses came from an English company that rescued them from Eastern European glue factories and trained them to perform. Some of the horses had to roll over during the filming and Caulfield mimics them prancing proudly after performing their stunts.

The body pile was the biggest concern for the art department. They used dead bodies and horses from different seasons and Riley says the common cry was “we need more dead bodies!”

Riley expresses gratitude for the production and crew on the show who had to prepare the body piles, especially the “thankless job” of dressing the many [fake] dead bodies and horses with armor, clothing and weaponry.

Except for the castle itself, everything you see here is real

Except for the Dragonstone castle itself, everything you see here is real

Dragonstone, as I’m sure you already know, dear Watchers, was filmed on the northern coast of Spain (in Guernica‘s very same Basque Country, in fact.) For the scene in which Dany disembarks from the ship and steps on Westerosi soil for the first time, the mantra on set was “shoot fast” because the beach was engulfed quickly by the tide.

Did you notice all of those stairs in Dragonstone? Well, they’re real, from Gaztelugatxe, an old monastery dedicated to Saint John. There are 200 of them. And the crew had to lug equipment up every. single. one.

Caulfield and Riley point out the separate components (geographic and artistic) comprising the sequence depicting Dany’s return to Dragonstone. They break it down into four parts: the beach with its tides and beautiful rocky ‘flysch‘ strata that would inspire the Dragonstone throne; the gates which were created and shot by the crew in a Belfast lot; the majestic steps in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe; and the brutalist cathedral-like throne room the episode concludes in.

Riley loves the hexagonal tiles of the Dragonstone throne room. The crew worked in 24 hour shifts to complete the set.

The final season was the greatest production design challenge of them all

Working on the final season was a particularly emotional experience

Riley says she “cried her eyes out” at the completion of the series.

Riley and Caulfield shared that they get many calls from people working on other television shows asking them “how do you do that?!”.

They describe Game of Thrones as a small show with distinctive characters that grew over time into the epic series it is now, and said that the success of Game of Thrones actually hurts new shows that “want to be us” who try to start too big and epic too early on and miss the development and gradual expansion of the show.

As the evening reaches its conclusion, Caulfield shares a sentiment some Game of Thrones fans may agree with: “It will never get better than this.”

29 responses

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    1. Ten Bears:
      ASNAWP!

      Is the pizza from Maisie’s bloody pizza party story? I love that story.

      Each location and building had a true personality. Whether it was riding with a horde under the two giant horses or sailing under the titan, I knew exactly what world I was in… The Titan may be my favorite, but I have a soft spot for Bravos.

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    2. Ten Bears,

      That’s awesome…You know I was thinking about the Titan just now. I was thinking about how it was cool that they decided to have the Titan with a broken sword, and I just realized the broken sword matches what happened to Syrio…. coincidence?

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    3. Tron79,

      Good point!
      I truly wish they had Miltos Y. at the Red Carpet. I’m not sure there was ever a character who made such an indelible impression in just three brief scenes.

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    4. That’s cool that they used Guernica as inspiration for BotB. The agony of the horses, the civilians… brought me to tears when I saw Guernica in real life. It is an incredibly moving piece of artwork- maybe the one piece of static visual art that has elicited the highest emotional impact on me ever. It’s massive. I want to say it’s like 5 x 10 meters. Waterworks were flowing. If you can get to Madrid to see this at some point in your life, you will not be sorry.

      9 days. 9 hours. 9 minues. 9 seconds

      STOKED

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    5. Ten Bears,

      He would have been great to see. I just happened to re-watch “the pointy end” yesterday. I was re-watching season 1 again so it was fresh in my mind for 9 days from now…

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    6. Tron79,

      And here everybody thought Syrio was Jaqen… but really, Syrio IS the TITAN. No, seriously- that is a cool observation- wonder if anything will come of it. Doubtful at this point- but still one of those subtle nods..

      I was just working on a song this morning… something about “all just statues in the sky/floating overhead/we never wonder why”

      Maybe this is why. Fortuitous serendipity.

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    7. I’m sure this season will be a visual feast. The long night sucked, but glad they took the time on post production #SingleDigits

        Quote  Reply

    8. I’m so glad the amazing behind the scenes work of these people gets highlighted. GoT would not be what it is without them.

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    9. Sister Kisser,

      Wow. Your statues in the sky song sounds interesting. There have been lots of talks of statues including Kit last night on Fallon (talking about having his crypt statue shipped to him). I’ve also thought more than once about the Dr. Who episode Blink (the one with the Angel statues) when thinking about what could happen with the Crypt.

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    10. I’d be the person working on the “body pile” who’d be giving names and background stories to all the prop dummies. 🤔

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    11. Pigeon,

      Sign of a true fan :). GRRM would be proud. Now if you could only give a detailed description of each and every last supper…

        Quote  Reply

    12. I hope at least some people on set called Kit “snow guy” to make things just that much more confusing.

        Quote  Reply

    13. “Riley loves that there were so many architectural styles crammed into one show, especially her Meereen set. People accused Riley of ripping off Frank Lloyd Wright and she does not dispute it; she was asked to write for a Frank Lloyd Wright magazine after the episodes aired and described it as professional validation.”

      I marveled at the Meereen sets most of all and now I know why. She did a fantastic job of cribbing Frank Lloyd Wright, as I assumed they’d filmed in one of Mr. Wright’s sensational buildings. If you’re going to copy, copy the greatest and Frank Lloyd Wright is the greatest visual Artist this Country has ever produced. Or as Picasso is said to have remarked: “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

      Most of the time the production crew succeeded and succeeded very well. The House of Black and White, the ruins of Valyria, Dragonstone and the various apartments and public spaces in the Red Keep immediately come to mind. Sometimes they slipped up as in the gardens shown in Seasons 2, 3 and 5 which displayed New World plantings of Magnolia grandiflora, and Bougainvillea alongside modern hybrid tea roses and other recent cultivars contributing a delightful and fanciful – although highly anachronistic – effect.

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    14. Sister Kisser,

      I had the same reaction. We did an intensive study on Guernica in high school, so when I finally got the chance to see it in real life, 15 years later, I sobbed like a baby.

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    15. Luka Nieto:
      Alba,

      I’m sure the Iron Throne would look very different if they’d had Season 7 levels of budget at their disposal 😉

      It’s not because of that. I never had issues with IT tbh. I think it’s very well done. Though not exactly as GRRM describes it. Nevertheless it’s very Kingly, so to speak, and majestic. It’s cool.
      I just prefer Dragonstone throne as a design more.

        Quote  Reply

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